Elegant Appetizers
Festive vegetarian finger foods add low-fat flair to holiday entertaining

By Ying Compestine
Photos by Priscilla Montoya

Nobody wants to spend the holidays stuck in the kitchen, yet year after year, tradition keeps many of us strapped to the stove for the season. And with all the big meals and fat-laden foods that the holidays bring, it's not surprising to begin to feel as heavy as one of your kitchen appliances. It's time to entertain without all the fat and the fuss. These vegetarian appetizers are light, flavorful and fun—and the perfect solution for an easy celebration with friends and family. The following nonintimidating recipes are creative in presentation and will fool your guests into thinking you've been a slave to the stove, when instead you've made it simple.

Pan-fried Tofu with Mango-Ginger Salsa

Serves 8 / This is a great dish for introducing tofu to those meat lovers.

Mango-Ginger Salsa
1 ripe large mango, peeled, pitted and diced into 1/4-inch cubes
1 small red onion, about 1 cup, minced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced
2 teaspoons olive oil
1/4 cup chopped basil leaves
Salt and pepper to taste

Tofu
2 packages pre-baked tofu, flavor choice optional
3 tablespoons canola oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 green onion, minced

1. In a medium-size bowl, mix together the salsa ingredients. Cover and refrigerate.

2. Cut tofu into 8 thin, rectangular pieces.

3. Heat 1-1/2 tablespoons canola oil in a nonstick cooking pan over medium-high heat and swirl to coat pan. Add garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

4. Line bottom of pan with tofu pieces. Pan-fry until golden brown. Add remaining 1-1/2 tablespoons canola oil, turn, and pan-fry other side, about 3 minutes each side.

5. Place pre-baked tofu on a serving plate. Top with Mango-Ginger Salsa and garnish with minced green onion.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 202 calories Fat: 12g % fat calories: 54% Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 10g Protein: 14g

Avocado Bruschetta with Roasted Pepper Sauce

Makes 20 / The sauce can be made ahead of time, but prepare the avocado mixture and toast the bread right before serving. If you have trouble finding orange and yellow tomatoes, substitute with cherry tomatoes.

Roasted Pepper Sauce
1 cup bottled roasted red bell peppers
1/4 cup bottled sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled
3 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Avocado Garnish
1 large ripe Haas avocado, pitted, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 small orange tomato, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
2 small yellow tomatoes, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt, to taste
20 slices sourdough flute, cut 1/2 inch thick, brushed with olive oil and lightly toasted

1. Place all sauce ingredients in a blender or food processor, and process until smooth. Cover and refrigerate.

2. In medium-size bowl, toss avocado and tomato chunks with lemon juice and olive oil. Season with salt.

3. Using a knife, spread about 1 tablespoon of sauce on each slice of toasted bread. Arrange the avocado garnish on top. Serve immediately.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 113 calories Fat: 4g % fat calories: 29 Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 17g Protein: 3g

Spring Rolls

Makes 12 rolls / This is a dish you can make a day ahead. Or you can wait until your guests arrive and have them help assemble the spring rolls. It's a great way to introduce your guests to each other. When these spring rolls are properly folded, the basil or mint leaves will show through the skin.

12 (8-inch) round, dried rice-paper wrappers
12 fresh basil leaves or mint leaves

Filling
2 ounces dried bean thread noodles
8 ounces flavored baked tofu, julienned
4 green onions, green part only, julienned
1 medium red bell pepper, julienned
1/2 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons Thai Sauce (see recipe below)

1. To make the filling, cover the bean thread noodles with hot water and soak until softened, about l5 minutes; drain. Cut into 3-inch lengths. Place with rest of filling ingredients in a bowl. Stir lightly to mix.

2. Soak a sheet of rice paper in warm water until soft, about 1 minute. Carefully transfer the rice paper to a dry cutting board.

3. Arrange 1 basil or mint leaf horizontally along the bottom third of the rice paper, with top side of leaf facing rice paper so that the leaf is seen through its translucent skin. Cover them with 2 to 3 tablespoons of filling. Fold both sides over the ends of the line of filling. Tightly roll up the rice paper to form a cylinder, as you would to form an egg roll or a blintz. Assemble the remaining spring rolls the same way. Cut each spring roll in half on the diagonal. Serve with Thai Sauce.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 95 calories Fat: 3g % fat calories: 26 Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 13g Protein: 5g

Thai Sauce

Makes 3/4 cup / A perfect complement for spring rolls, this sauce will last up to five days in the refrigerator. Feel free to add more chili pepper if you like it spicy.

1 tablespoon canola oil
1 small, fresh red chile pepper, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 cup rice vinegar
1-1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
1/2 tablespoon lemon juice

1. Heat a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Add canola oil. Add the chile and garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add honey, juice, vinegar, soy sauce and lemon juice. Bring to a boil.

2. Let the sauce cool. Cover and store in a tightly sealed container in the refrigerator.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 22 calories Fat: 1g % fat calories: 44 Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 3g Protein: 0g

Broiled Shiitake Mushroom Stacks

Makes 15 / The longer you marinate the mushrooms, the better the flavor. If you can, marinate them overnight.

1 pound (about 15) medium-sized fresh shiitake mushrooms

Marinade
6 tablespoons orange juice
4 tablespoons rice vinegar
4 tablespoons canola oil
10 cilantro sprigs, chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
2 small Jalapeño peppers, chopped
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper

For Garnish
1 large English cucumber, thinly sliced
2 medium tomatoes, thinly sliced

1. For fresh mushrooms, wash and discard stems. For dried mushrooms, soak mushrooms in warm water until softened, about 15 minutes, then drain. Discard stems.

2. Combine all marinade ingredients in a bowl. Mix well. Spoon on top of mushroom caps. Cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes or longer.

3. Preheat broiler. Place mushroom caps, stem sides up, in a greased baking pan. Spray lightly with cooking spray. Broil with tops 4 inches from heat until light brown, about 5-6 minutes.

4. To serve, stack cucumbers on a serving plate, topping each with a mushroom and tomato slice; use leftover tomatoes and cucumbers to decorate the plate in an alternating pattern.

Nutrition Facts Per Serving: Calories: 53 calories Fat: 4g % fat calories: 61 Cholesterol: 0mg Carbohydrate: 5g Protein: 1g Ying Chang Compestine is the author of Secrets of Fat-Free Chinese Cooking (Avery 1997), The Runaway Rice Cake (Simon & Schuster 2001) and The Story Of Chopsticks (Holiday House 2001).